We've come a long way, but...

BME students do design project
Left to right: Hannah Goldring, Rebekah Abrams, and Taryn Milnes working on their senior design project in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

...there's still work to be done to achieve gender equity

Hannah Goldring majored in biomedical engineering at the University of Rochester because “it seemed like a way that I could make a direct impact on people.”

Goldring and three of her classmates—Rebekah Abrams, Taryn Milnes, and Olivia Uttamsingh—enjoyed the opportunity to do just that with their senior design project.

The students worked with a Rochester area company that provides employment opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They found ways to make an assembly line for producing radio dust covers more accessible. They also identified ways to minimize the chances of workers getting burned or inhaling fumes. Read more about this in our newscenter article.

The four students were part of a 2019 BME undergraduate class at Rochester that awarded 52.5 percent of its diplomas to women.

Despite the persistent underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, this is not the case in disciplines such as environmental engineering, biomedical engineering, and biological and agricultural engineering. One study suggests this is because women are attracted to the obvious societal benefits associated with these disciplines—such as sustainability and health care. Another study linked the percentage of women students with the percentage of women faculty, suggesting that interactions with female role models may play a significant part in influencing the number of women undergraduates in science and engineering.

Both factors help explain the remarkable success the Department of Biomedical Engineering has had at the University of Rochester in attracting and graduating women undergraduates in just 20 years since its founding.

Biomedical engineering combines the design and problem-solving skills of engineering with medical and biological sciences to advance health care treatment, including diagnosis, monitoring, and therapy. The Rochester department, created in 2000, allows undergraduates to choose one of four areas of concentration: biosignals and biosystems, biomechanics, cell and tissue engineering, or medical optics.

And from its inception the department’s faculty has been at or near 50 percent women, well above the national average for BME departments.

The Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Rochester has registered progress in increasing the enrollment and graduation rates of women undergraduates in other departments as well. This past spring, 32.7 percent of the undergraduates receiving chemical engineering degrees were women, as were 30 percent in mechanical engineering and 29.4 percent in computer science.

Women received 30.9 percent of the Hajim School’s total undergraduate degrees in 2020, well above the national average of about 21 percent.

There is still much work to be done to achieve full gender equity in undergraduate enrollments in all of the school’s departments. Nonetheless, Rochester has come a long way since 1939, when it granted engineering degrees to women for the first time in its history.

Our first women graduates

Norma Doell and Marie Bessey challenged long-held stereotypes when they enrolled in optics and mechanical engineering, respectively, at the University in the mid 1930s. Local newspaper stories played up the angle of two women “majoring in distinctly masculine pursuits” and studying such “unfeminine sounding subjects” as metallurgy of steel and hydromechanics. (Read more here.)

In her 2009 book Women in Engineering: Pioneers and Trailblazers, Margaret Layne writes that throughout the first half of the last century, “women in engineering were perceived as oddities, defying gender norms.” Not until 1972, according to Layne, did women account for even one percent of undergraduate degrees in engineering in the United States.

At the University of Rochester, women undergraduates receiving engineering degrees in a given year never exceeded the number you could count on one hand until 1975, when seven graduated across six different departments and programs. Two years later, seven women undergraduates received degrees in chemical engineering, the largest cohort for a single department up until that time.

Even bigger increases were just around the corner. The number of BA/BS degrees in engineering awarded to women in the U.S. increased by 45 percent between 1980 and 1994, influenced in part by the feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. For example, Laurel Carney, who was growing up then, remembers that “when people asked me ‘what do you want to be when you grow up,’ and I said ‘I want to be a nurse,’ invariably I would hear ‘what about being a doctor?'

“I don’t remember who I heard it from, whether it was teachers, or neighbors, or people at church,” says Carney, now the Marylou Ingram Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Rochester, “but there were a lot of voices saying ‘you can do whatever you want.’”

The feminist movement, combined with civil rights legislation and decisions by national institutions to promote the success of women in science, helped empower more women to enter STEM fields. The Society of Women Engineers, founded in 1950, also provided avenues for women to mobilize and provide each other with professional, social, psychological, and financial assistance.

And so, the trickle of women entering the engineering pipeline gradually became a steady flow.

chart shows increase in women undergraduates

(Chart by Stephen Dow/University of Rochester Creative Services)

This chart tracks the increase in women receiving undergraduate degrees in engineering and computer science at the University of Rochester.

Oil crisis prompts surge in chemical engineering

Sharon Hoffman came to the University of Rochester in 1976 intending to major in environmental engineering. She was advised instead to take chemical engineering because it was considered a more robust, better recognized major with better career prospects.

Ten years later, Julie Bentley arrived at the University intending to major in chemical engineering. But by then the job outlook in the field was not nearly so promising; the big demand was in optics, so Bentley enrolled at the University’s Institute of Optics instead.

Both Hoffman and Bentley were part of the first substantial cohorts of women engineering undergraduates at the University. Their stories illustrate how the increases in women engineering students that began in the late 1970s -- and continue today – have varied from department to department. Even within departments there have been periodic ebbs and flows, triggered by economic forces and other factors.

For example, the Middle East oil crisis, brought on by the 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran and by the start of the Iran–Iraq War, caused the Carter Administration to put top priority on developing synthetic fuel as an alternative to imported fossil fuels.

This, in turn, led to “frantic hiring practices by companies in the energy field,” writes John Friedly in his history of Rochester’s Department of Chemical Engineering.

 “Many companies tried new tactics to gain an entrée to chemical engineering students. Several recruiters from major companies came to the Department with check in hand, hoping to gain an advantage. It was relatively easy for undergraduates to obtain multiple job offers and select the best opportunity.”

This led to a major increase in the department’s undergraduate enrollment, which represented more than 10 percent of the entire first-year class of the University in 1980. This included record numbers of women.

Of the 56 chemical engineering undergraduates listed at the University’s commencement in 1983, 20 were women. During the four class years of ’82 to ’85, 59 women received bachelor’s degrees in chemical engineering.

The department’s seven-member faculty, depleted by three recent departures, struggled to keep up with the class loads, writes Friedly, who was the department chair.

“Classes were so large that close interaction with students could not be maintained. Too few teaching assistants were available for grading papers and conducting recitations.”

The boom in enrollment did not last long. One of Ronald Reagan’s first acts in the White House was to cancel synthetic fuel subsidies. The industry hiring frenzy abruptly halted; the enrollment increases slowed, and then reversed. For the next several years the job market remained weak for chemical engineers.

A boom in optics

That was clearly the message Bentley heard when she arrived on campus in 1986. Even local film giant Eastman Kodak was “laying off chemical engineers left and right,” Bentley recalls. (The year Bentley arrived, the company announced it would lay off 10 percent of its workforce.)

Instead, The Institute of Optics was the place to be. It had just moved into brand new quarters in the Space Science (now Wilmot) Building. More importantly, the nation was experiencing “an explosion of applications of laser optics into all sorts of new industries—medicine, telecommunications, manufacturing, inspection, defense, and even super-market checkout,” Carlos Stroud writes in A Jewel in the Crown, the collection of essays he edited chronicling the Institute’s first 75 years.

Representatives of the defense industry were “picking up people in limos and giving them job offers like you wouldn’t believe,” Bentley says. “Having grown up with little money, I wanted to make sure I had a job when I left college.”

When Bentley enrolled at the Institute in 1986, it was “bursting at the seams with students and activity,” Stroud writes. A record 339 undergraduates were enrolled at The Institute that year. Sixty-seven seniors graduated in 1986, compared to only 7 in 1975. Of the 67, 14 were women.

The number of women graduates increased to 22 the following year. One West Coast military research company flew 50 of the Institute’s graduating seniors to Los Angeles, en masse, to interview for jobs. From 1985 through 1991, a total of 109 women received bachelor’s degrees from the Institute.

But in optics, as in chemical engineering, the enrollment increases created strains.

“The twelve members on the Optics faculty did not feel that they could give such large classes the quality of education that an Institute of Optics degree was supposed to represent,” Stroud writes. “There was no time to learn all of the students’ names much less to supervise individual research projects.”

The faculty decided to limit class size by raising the minimum standards. Undergraduate enrollments dropped sharply, dipping below 20 graduates in the late 1990s.

Reversing the trend in computer science

Even as the number of women graduating with bachelors degrees in engineering increased 45 percent between 1980 and 1994, a reverse trend was taking place in computer science. The numbers of women graduating with bachelors’ degrees in that discipline declined 23 percent from 1984 to 1994.

Tracy Camp, a professor in the Department of Mathematical and Computer Sciences at the Colorado School of Mines, blamed this “incredible shrinking pipeline” on:

  • The development of computer games designed and marketed for males only;
  • A perception that computer science was the domain of "hacker/nerd/antisocial" personality types;
  • Gender discrimination in computing;
  • Lack of role models at the university level.

Even today, only about 19 percent of computer science bachelor’s degrees go to women.

Rochester’s Department of Computer Science, which did not begin granting undergraduate degrees until 1995, was not immune to this trend. However, in 2014 Sandhya Dwarkadas took an important step toward reversing it.

Dwarkadas—who had been recently appointed chair of the department and who, at that time, was the only woman on its faculty—was in the audience at a Computing Research Association chair’s meeting when Maria Klawe issued a call to action to increase diversity in computer science.

“Having taught many courses over the years with one or two or, sometimes, no women in the class,” Dwarkadas says, “I responded immediately.”

As a result, the department was one of only 15 nationwide selected to participate in the BRAID (Building, Recruiting, And Inclusion for Diversity) Initiative.

This contributed to a dramatic increase in the percentage of women graduates in the Rochester department from 5% in 2010 to 29.4% in 2020.

As part of its participation in BRAID, the Rochester computer science department agreed to:

  • modify introductory computer science courses to make them more appealing and less intimidating to underrepresented students,
  • lead outreach programs for high school teachers and students to build a diverse pipeline of students,
  • build confidence and community among underrepresented students,
  • develop or promote joint majors -- such as computer science and biology -- that are attractive to underrepresented students.

The $30,000 a year the department receives for participating in BRAID allows several women students to attend the annual Grace Hopper Conference, where they can benefit from workshops, learn from women role models who are leaders in technology, and network with potential employers.

Dwarkadas said she is “especially, amazingly happy” at how much the students are contributing to BRAID on their own initiative.

The department’s WIC (Women in Computing) student group, which has increased from about 30 members to more than 200, recently renamed itself WIC-MIC – adding Minorities in Computing in recognition of the work that still needs to be done to recruit students from other underrepresented populations.

WIC-MIC students do the bulk of the department’s outreach efforts, conducting a Girls Who Code program for high school students, an annual Girl Scout day, and visits to local high schools.

“This is all on their own initiative; there are no faculty telling them to do this,” Dwarkadas says, “and I think it’s fantastic.”